The Final Four is set and it is a history-making event for reasons other than the fact that only a few thousand fans will be able to attend at the end of a pandemic-adjusted NCAA Tournament played entirely in one state. The big new piece of history made by this Final Four is that it’s the first since the inaugural event in 1939 in which no team east of the Mississippi River is involved. The second semifinal is an all-West Coast affair between UCLA and Gonzaga. The first semifinal is an all-Texas battle between former Southwest Conference schools Houston and Baylor where Houston is a dog on the college basketball odds. Let’s start by looking at Houston:
How The Houston Cougars Got Here
The Cougars are the first team in the history of the NCAA Tournament to play four double-digit seeds en route to the Final Four. The Cougars were a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. They defeated Cleveland State in an easy first-round game, but they were in big trouble in their second-round game. They trailed 10th-seeded Rutgers by nine points with three minutes left. Staring at elimination, they rallied as Rutgers collapsed under defensive pressure and missed a few free throws plus some easy layups.
Houston pulled off a 14-2 run in the final three minutes to win by three, 63-60. After surviving that scare, the Cougars controlled the tempo and style of their next two games, handling No. 11 seed Syracuse and then No. 12 seed Oregon State to make the Final Four. Houston led Oregon State by 17 at halftime in the Elite Eight and watched Oregon State reduce the lead to two points, but the Cougars grabbed multiple offensive rebounds in the final few minutes to win by six, 67-61. The Cougars made their first Final Four since 1984, when a man named Hakeem Olajuwon led Houston to the national championship game against Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas.
The Cougars were great on the offensive glass against Oregon State, and that is Houston’s big strength. The Cougars are a terrific rebounding team. They don’t do everything well, but they are never outworked. They are elite rebounders and defensive players. They always put forth a tremendous effort and make it hard for opponents to score baskets and gain extra possessions over the course of a game.
The Cougars are not a great shooting team. Their rebounding matters so much because they don’t always hit shots in their initial offensive possession. There are a lot of misses to grab, and while it’s great that Houston tracks down missed shots, an opponent which does a solid job of rebounding can pose big problems for the Cougars. Houston scored just 49 points in the first 37 minutes of that scary second-round game against Rutgers. Houston had to score a lot of points quickly and was fortunate to do so. Baylor has a very strong defense which should make it hard for Houston’s half-court offense to function.
The reality that Houston has played a 15 seed, a 10 seed, an 11 seed, and a 12 seed to reach the Final Four means the Cougars have not received adequate preparation for Baylor, which is a No. 1 seed. Houston will be stepping up in weight class and it figures to be a tough transition. That’s why they’re a dog according to lines posted at the sportsbook. Houston has achieved its goal for the season, making the Final Four, but it will not beat Baylor.